Young and elderly Afghans pose for a photo [Photo: TRT World]

History pages of no other country are filled with so much the narration of unabated bloodshed, horrific dynastic feuds, plundering, internecine conflicts and gruesome military engagements as they are of the Afghans­—a historic multi-ethnic nation whose largely unfortunate fate have overshadowed so many great things about it. Historically, a nation of marvelous conquests and unprecedented resilience has been the hot topic, frequently featuring despairing news, of 21st century regional and global politics due to its role, hosting the War on Terror and decades-long Afghan War. The nature of their distinctive traits and reasons of their unfortunate fate can be rightly associated with the description of artist and Lieutenant, James Rattray, 1790-1862, who served in the British Army and studied the Afghans comprehensively. He describes them as “naturally a restless and independent people, and according to one of their own proverbs, ready to bear hunger, thirst, cruelty and death, but never–a master.” However, on a careful historical analysis, one reach the conclusion that their frequent military entanglements and sacrifices have not prospered them a lot due to their ignorance of peripheral dynamics and long-term implications.

This essay attempts to highlight the engagement of Afghans in incessant domestic and foreign conflicts, underlining the reasons of bogging in inessential quagmires. Moreover, it explores how religious ideologies have been employed to manipulate their natural restlessness and religious enthusiasm for the pursuit of other gains.

 In retrospect, India, a natural ally of the Afghans, has been home to individuals and families from around the globe. Apart from the Turk, French, Arab, Persian and Central Asian soldiers of fortune, India embraced the Afghan families and warriors, escaping poverty in their polities and embarked on a new destination to make a living for themselves, mostly through engaging in trade and selling their fighting services. The Afghan warriors, renowned for their bravery and ruthlessness, were sought after by many local chieftains and warlords who were keen to cement and expand their powerbase and rule. In modern Indian history, the Afghans have been credited as a formidable fighting force who went on to take control of Delhi, the Mughal capital, and ruled the city for around a decade at the expense of grave losses to this once marvelous city.

The first major military engagement of Afghans in India was when Shah Waliullah, a Muslim reformist, after being shrugged by other Muslim nobles and Mughal princes to help him implement his reformist agenda wrote a letter to the founder and ruler of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, to invade and stop the growing influence of ‘infidels’—Jats, Marathas and Sikhs. Durrani fought a bloody battle with the Marathas at Panipat and broke down their power in India. The narrow-sightedness of both Shah Waliullah and Durrani significantly turned the tables in favor of British forces who saw the Marathas as a check to their expansion. It has been one of the greatest myths in Afghan historical discourse to believe that Durrani invaded India at the behest of a prominent Muslim scholar and at the intention of saving Islam from further threats. The former could be verified by the historical sources but the latter can’t be substantiated by the prevalent dominant discourse in Afghan history books because a neutral reading of multiple history sources suggest the fact that Durrani was more interested in the gold and jewels of India rather than the revival and predominance of Muslims in India.

In analysis of an another event from history, it is quite interesting to note how a prominent Indian Muslim leader, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, in a letter addresses and requests the Afghan ruler, Shah Zaman, to assist him in his political and military campaigns against the British and rival Marathas, despite the fact that the two polities did not have any established relations: the only commonality was their religion. Tipu seeing his downfall of military prowess deftly uses the expressions of ‘infidels’ and ‘holy war’ to lure him into accepting his requests of sending 20,000 Afghan cavalry in return of 3 crore rupees. The Afghan ruler responds by showing great ambition in the pursuit of engaging in ‘holy war’. However, the superiority of British diplomacy overcame the prospects of joint Tipu-Zaman venture into battlefield against the British.  

In contemporary politics of Cold War, Afghans and Afghanistan proved to be the perfect match to employ in eradicating the menace of communism once and for all. This CIA was in charge of the mission to train, sustain, fund and arm the Afghan guerillas settled in Pakistan. The objective was to trap and wound the Soviet bear which was dexterously completed at the expense of millions of Afghan casualties and complete destruction of Afghanistan. The CIA, knowing the social and religious sensitivities of Afghans, was keen to do whatever tactics they had to employ in order to activate the indigenous enthusiasm of Afghans for fighting to keep the flame of resistance hot and burning. The project of publishing religious textbooks, funded by USAID and assisted by ISI in circulation in refugee camps, glorified violence in the name of religion. Ironically, the books were published in University of Nebraska, Omaha which nurtured a generation of young refugee Afghans which glamorized violence and bloodshed. The guerillas who were romanticized as liberators of Afghanistan from the godless creatures were no less than Western or to be precise American mercenaries who vied for the sole purpose of making fortunes and consolidating power: their actions after the Soviet withdrawal proved it right. The Afghans in general, sacrificing whatever they had for the revival of sovereignty,  earned nothing consequential instead of misery, destruction, violence and dire poverty while the Mujahideen leaders went on to become the most powerful figures in Afghanistan who continues to dominate key political positions even today.

The conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has once again intensified. The Afghans having been occupied by their own pains might not know much about the conflict but there are some Afghans who have participated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1990s. It is reported that nearly 5000 Afghan fighters, belonging to Hezb-i-Islami faction of Gulbaden Hekmatyar, were flown from Iran to Azerbaijan to fight alongside the Azeri soldiers. A local Afghan news have reported the leader of the faction, Hekmatyar, proudly taking credit to have sent his followers to defend the Muslim Azeris against the infidel Armenians. It is interesting to relate to one soldier who recalls his memories of the war by saying that when I went there I had only $250 but upon returning it had reached $1700.

On the Middle Eastern front, the Afghan Shia Hazara refugees in Iran have been reported to be actively fighting alongside the Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. They were flown on the pretense to carry out their Islamic duty of protecting the shrine of the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad in Damascus. The Afghan Fatemiyoun brigade has been used as cannon fodder in Iran’s geopolitical power games.

When it comes to the manipulation of Afghan human force and fighting capabilities, nowhere else can it be seen more evident than in Pakistan’s political games with the United States and India. The Pakistani military and intelligence agency, the ISI, have been at the forefront since the inception of War on Terror to wear the mighty American military to withdraw the region and take over the Afghan affairs vis-à-vis India. The Taliban have been surprisingly successful to resist the highly trained and technologically-advanced forces of United States, despite their significant losses throughout the years. The fighting capabilities of Taliban, who originally are Afghans, have surprised the international community by not giving up on their cause. The motivational force behind such steadfastness is none other than the miraculous powers of Islamic ideology, especially that of holy war. However, one cannot neglect the strategic and military support of a nuclear power at their disposal.

After analyzing some historical events, some relations can be found to unearth the reasons and the dominant inclinations of Afghans towards military adventures. It must be noted that successive Afghan rulers have been unable to consolidate their powers over the entire population. History approves James Rattray’s description of Afghans as Independent people who have been largely unrestrained in their individual decision-making. In addition, the Afghan society is ultraconservative which is sometimes easily carried away by injuring or manipulating their sentiments attached to the notions of religion and ideology. This trait has been mainly manipulated by various countries of the region who under the guise of religion pursues other political, economic and political ends. Moreover, Afghan rulers have not been successful in uniting every section of society under one roof in pursuit of a unified cause. Afghans with their instinctive military prowess can emerge as a challenging force in the future only if their potential is rightly accumulated and utilized. The Afghans have proved time and gain that to overcome any force you need not necessarily the numbers but the spirit and courage to fight till the end. These assets must not be wasted on fighting foreign wars. The Afghan intelligentsia and political elite must prioritize the need to stop the manipulation of Afghans as cannon fodder for the interests and agenda of other countries. Afghan potential must not be misplaced any further. If they fail to act in the right direction, a section of this great nation will be considered as a brutal mercenary force for the polities of the region which is not a desired recognition for any civilized nation.


  • Samiullah Doorandesh

    Samiullah Doorandesh is a student of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He belongs to Afghanistan and writes about Afghan politics and security, South Asia, Afghan-India relations, Foreign policy and Terrorism. His writings have appeared in Small Wars Journal, Geopolitical Monitor, South Asia Journal, Pakistan Today and Modern Diplomacy. He can be reached at Samiullah.doorandesh[at]